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Exploring Railtown 1897 from Every Angle

by Roberta McReynolds

Nestled in the foothills east of the San Joaquin Valley of California is a unique treasure. Railtown 1897 State Historical Park is located in Jamestown, just off Highway 108. It was once the hub of a working railroad, until a new roundhouse facility was built in Oakdale during the 1950s. Fortunately, the original roundhouse and out buildings were never demolished, preserving the site like a walk-in time capsule.

I discovered this charming place in 1990 thanks to my husband, Mike, a year before we were married. He invited me to come spend a day riding steam train excursions as a guest and I ended up hooked. Mike was spending every free weekend at the park working his way through various train crew jobs to reach his goal of steam locomotive engineer.

One day the concessionaire mentioned I should get up in the engine and start training as a fireman. He was teasing, I think, but my swift answer left him little room to maneuver out of the situation he had created. I was game to give it a try.

Dressed out in overalls, men’s heavy work boots, gloves and a blue & white striped cap to top off my ensemble, I tagged along at Mike’s heels with every intention of conquering the great iron, fire-breathing beast; otherwise known as Engine #28, a 72-ton Baldwin 2-8-0 built in 1922. Contrary to the common association of a fireman’s job of dousing flames, the duties of a steam locomotive fireman include keeping the fire burning hot.

All the engines at Railtown are oil-fired, which meant I never had to shovel coal or stoke the firebox with wood. Oil the consistency of molasses flowed from a gravity-fed system controlled by a valve the fireman adjusts. Constantly adjusts, by the way, along with an atomizer to regulate the size of the droplets of oil. One eye methodically watches the smokestack, striving to maintain a light gray haze. Billowing, heavy dark smoke indicates too much oil is being used; an obvious blunder every other member of the train crew doesn’t miss. White smoke means the fireman didn’t keep enough oil flowing into the firebox, causing the fire to actually go out. If the oil isn’t promptly adjusted with a certain amount of finesse, the spontaneous ignition can result in a fireball known to remove eyebrows. Glancing regularly through the peep hole in the firebox door helps prevent this embarrassing situation.

The fireman’s other eye needs to monitor the steam pressure diligently, keeping it within a 5 psi range. Did I mention that a steam locomotive is like riding a potential bomb? Part of the discipline also involves scrutinizing the water glass, which reflects how much water is currently in the boiler. Two eyes aren’t really enough though, because the fireman must be alert to possible hazards on the track ahead (most commonly cows), while the trailing passenger cars are also being observed.

The fireman’s seat (more like a wooden box) was built with long-legged men in mind. I am 5’4" and discovered that my feet didn’t reach the deck of the locomotive unless I sat with my tailbone on the very edge of the box and my boot-clad toes pointed. My calf muscles tended to cramp, especially later on, waking me in the middle of the night. When it was time to ring the bell as the train approached grade crossings or entered the main yard, I needed to stretch up like a ballerina on pointe with one arm far above my head to reach the bell rope. Here’s a bit of obvious trivia; brass bells are heavy! Heavy enough to give an amateur bodybuilder a good workout at the end of the shift.

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©2008 Roberta McReynolds for SeniorWomenWeb
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